The hidden history of Texas
Part 10: 1920-1930/1 — The rise of the Klan in Texas
By Bob Feldman | The Rag Blog | December 12, 2012
[This is the first section of Part 10 of Bob Feldman’s Rag Blog series on the hidden history of Texas.]
Between 1920 and 1930, the number of people living in Texas increased from over 4.6 million to over 5.8 million, and the percentage of Texas residents who now lived in urban towns and cities with populations above 2,500 people increased from 34 to 41 percent.
By 1930, over 292,000 people lived in Houston, over 260,000 people lived in Dallas, over 231,000 people lived in San Antonio and over 163,000 people lived in Fort Worth — although the number of people living in Austin in 1930 was still less than 54,000.
Between 1920 and 1930 the percentage of farmers in Texas who were now just tenant farmers also increased to 61 percent. And in Texas during the “Roaring Twenties,” as Randolph Campbell recalled in his book, Gone To Texas:
Thousands upon thousands of farmers continued to live in destructive poverty as tenants and sharecroppers. Giant corporations still wielded monopoly power because anti-trust and regulatory laws had always aimed more at “foreign” businesses… Laws protecting children in industry… went unenforced… The doctrine of white supremacy ruled race relations, and in South Texas Anglo bosses exploited Texans of Mexican descent politically and economically…
Alwyn Barr’s Black Texans, observed:
Mob violence increased in the early 1920s with the rise of the new Ku Klux Klan… Klansmen branded a black bellhop in Dallas with acid and castrated a light-skinned Negro accused of relations with a white woman. They raided the office of the Houston Informer and threatened the Dallas Express, both black papers. Hooded groups beat a black youth in Texarkana, removed two Negroes from the Denton jail to flog them, and forced black cotton pickers near Corsicana to end their strike for higher wages…
In addition, during the 1920s, “the new Klan, which claimed over 100,000 members in the state, proved powerful enough… to help elect Earle B. Mayfield, a Klansman, to the United States Senate from Texas,” the same book noted.
According to Gone To Texas :
The KKK arrived in Texas in September 1920 when a kleagle came to Houston and recruited 100 men into the state’s first local chapter. “The initial roster represented literally a glossary of Houston ’s Who’s Who,” wrote one observer. The charter members were silk-stocking men from the banks, business houses, and professions…
From its Houston beginning, the Klan spread rapidly across the state. In January 1922, when membership reached more than 75,000, Texas was organized as a realm of the “Invisible Empire” under its own grand dragon, A.D. Ellis, an Episcopal priest from Beaumont. That same year women… obtained a Texas charter as the Women of the Invisible Empire of America. In June 1923, 1,500 masked and robed klanswomen held a parade through Fort Worth. Eventually male membership alone stood at approximately 150,000.
Some opposition to the KKK’s growing influence in Texas electoral politics began to develop within Texas white power structure and political establishment circles (who then backed state-wide candidates that were able to defeat some KKK members who ran against them) by 1924. But as Merline Pitre’s In Struggle Against Jim Crow noted:
The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was a viable force in Houston and throughout the state. In Texas, this vigilante group occupied a position of power and influence unequaled in any other state, giving Texas the designation of Star Klan State. Houston was dubbed as the Star Klan City…
In 1921, Houston Klansmen, led by Deputy Sheriff George E. Kimbro, attacked and castrated a black dentist and beat a white lawyer who represented him. Several years later, the Klan tarred and feathered a black physician. In 1928, a Houston mob dragged a black man, accused of killing a white police officer, from his bed in a local hospital and hanged him from a bridge — a murder for which no one was ever convicted. Additionally, a Klan newspaper, Colonel Mayfield’s Weekly, circulated throughout the city.
[In Houston ] in 1920, backed by a city ordinance, the American Legion excluded blacks from the annual Armistice Day parade. Blacks also were prohibited from voting in the municipal elections of February 1921. In 1923 and 1924, respectively, blacks were banned from standing in the same lines as whites to purchase stamps at the post office and to pay property taxes at the Harris County Courthouse. In 1925, the Electric Company excluded blacks from riding its buses, while in 1926, the Majestic Theater refused to admit blacks on weekends.
In 1921, Houston ’s Democratic Party also passed a resolution “allowing only whites to vote in the upcoming Democratic primary;” and in 1923 the Texas state legislature passed a law stating that “only white Democrats and none other” could vote in primary elections, according to the same book.
Between 1920 and 1930, the KKK was also visibly active on the streets of Austin, Texas . In 1921, for example, “500 white-robed and hooded Ku Klux Klansmen from Austin and San Antonio marched single file in silence up and down Congress Avenue, while thousands of spectators looked on,” according to David Humphrey’s Austin: An Illustrated History. The same book also observed:
Capital City Klan No. 81 was organized in 1921 and a year later had 1,500 members including the sheriff of Travis County and apparently other highly placed city and county police officials. The Klan thrived in Austin in the early and mid-1920s… In the mid-1920s the Klan even purchased a sizable piece of property off South Congress Avenue and erected a hall or “Klan haven”…
So, not surprisingly, Austin’s “1928 city plan recommended that East Austin be designated a `Negro district’ and that municipal services for blacks, such as schools and parks, be confined to this district” and so “thirteen-acre Rosewood Park in East Austin provided recreational facilities for blacks, but other city parks were closed to them,” according to Austin: An Illustrated History.
[Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based writer-activist and a former member of the Columbia SDS Steering Committee of the late 1960s. Read more articles by Bob Feldman on The Rag Blog.]